Why Governments Can’t Just Set and Forget Urban Renewal 1

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Friday, July 15th, 2016
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Many of the developments around Wolli Creek at North Arncliffe are now moving into their final stages.

Discovery Point is the centrepiece of the activity. This development has and continues to achieve industry recognition, but there is a lot to reflect upon. In my view, it’s reflections such as these and perhaps of Melbourne’s Docklands and the former NSW Agency Landcom’s East Sydney Victoria Park and Thornton at Penrith experiences that may have influenced Urban Growth chairman John Brodgen to pull the pin on a single developer being appointed to lead the Bays Precinct Urban Renewal on the foreshore of Sydney’s inner west.

Urban renewal projects are complex, they often take more than 10 to 15 years to deliver, and they will need to adapt to changing circumstances and changing delivery entities.

With that in mind, it’s important to consider:

  • how major urban renewals depend on strong early envisioning as the driving force to engage with the key stakeholders
  • the importance of the driving advocates being just as interested in ‘what’s in it for the neighbours’ as they are of their own objectives
  • why public agencies must be able to invest in enabling infrastructure and retain the capacity to intervene when the spirit of earlier undertakings may be at risk
  • the importance of governments playing a more effective role in ensuring that public assets are leveraged to achieve outcomes that cannot be left to the private sector.

The Urban Partnership was engaged by the Interciti Arncliffe Development Joint Venture to manage the site acquisition, consolidation, planning consent, early enabling works and the marketing of this complex site in early 2000. The Joint Venture involved Canberra’s private developer Landco, who had acquired the former Qantas owned site, and Landcom who were appointed by SRA to deal with the residual parcel of land surrounding the new Wolli Creek station.

It’s worth recording a few of the complexities that confronted this urban renewal. Wolli Creek station was a late and reluctant addition to the new privately developed airport line which has connected Campbelltown to the City Circle, Green Square and Sydney Airport Terminals, and the South Coast line to Bondi Junction. This station was directly funded by SRA and was not part of the tolled PPP stations. SRA minimised their spend on this variation to the PPP contract. The result lacked any thought about the site’s potential. The complexities that this created was an impediment to future development.

In addition to SRA’s lack of vision, the surrounding land had a number of contamination hot spots, complex in-ground geology including acid sulphate soils, an important heritage precinct around Tempe House, a heavily degraded Cooks River edge and what seemed an immovable Telstra optic fibre easement.

Wolli Creek had many positives as well. The site was the first stop after the airport, it was out of the flight path, it was five stops to the city centre, had great local amenities, and excellent services infrastructure. But there was no ‘there when you got there.’  The site needed branding, certainty and unlocking. Without Landcom bringing its public credibility, experience in these complex developments and the capacity to make part of the necessary upfront capital investment, nothing would have happened. Having sat dormant for some years prior, I believe the development now unfolding at Wolli Creek would not have started, even today. It’s as challenging as the Bay’s Precinct.

The viability of any urban renewal strategy will be dependent upon balancing economics and public interest. It will be contingent upon the level of public subscription in the event that the balance of public interest investment tips the scale of the development achieving this alone. There was no public subscription available for the Wolli Creek urban renewal. Obviously, the need for scale became the central economic reasoning for moving forward, but so was the tension to get on with restoring a degrading Tempe House and historical surrounds.

Realisation of urban renewal in the end turns on the quality of what is proposed, the degree to which key stakeholders are prepared to modify unrealistic expectations and eventually the confidence that the relevant consent authorities have in the proponents doing what they say they are going to do. Government agencies like Landcom are critical partners in these endeavours. The ability to evidence past successes adds to the mix.

Interciti was the original development name. It captured the vision of a connected hub. The rail, the airports, the proximity to the M5, the connectivity of existing communications infrastructure, the linkages provided to the Macquarie technology park, beaches, country and city all spoke to the potential that an urban renewal at Wolli Creek could provide in employment, recreation and residential living. The envisioning became the easy part.

Rockdale City Council had long sought a way to stimulate the revitalisation of North Arncliffe and for this to flow onto Rockdale town centre. At the top of their shopping list was job creation, the restoration of Tempe House and the public open spaces. Property owners throughout an area that was known as the North Arncliffe Precinct were weary of past ad hoc plans to get developments off the ground. They wanted inclusion in how they may leverage the potential of their land holdings. The friends of Tempe House and the Cook’s River community groups made their priorities clear. The NSW department of planning was reluctant to take a lead and the Heritage Council made it clear the going would be tough.

The joint venture commissioned four key studies, the first being a study and concept master plan by urban planner Nick Hollo for the North Arncliffe Redevelopment Area. This study was used to engage neighbouring land owners and stakeholders to gain their inputs to a revitalisation strategy that spoke for most.

It was an inspiring piece of collaboration. Hollo had an amazing ability to hand draw conceptual images of how everyone’s property or interest might fit into a renewed landscape. This work informed the making of Rockdale Council’s Development Control Plan 49 (DCP 49) for North Arncliffe as part of the City’s Planning Scheme Ordinance and Section 94 Contributions Plan, and these documents became the framework for the preparation of the Railway Precinct that became DCP 45. Council assigned a senior officer to oversee the development of DCP49, and this then became the basis for determination of the Interciti, subsequently Discovery Point development, consent.

By the time the joint venture called for master plan design responses for Interciti, many hours of business and local community consultation had created the aspirational buy-in for what followed. Landcom helped to build confidence through constant assurances that the right thing would be done. Howard Tanner led the preparation of heritage studies and control principles, and Clouston’s Crosbie Lorimer led the historic landscape, foreshore restoration and railway precinct landscape design principles work.

Hollo, Tanner, Lorimer, Landcom, Rockdale Council and Landco formed the master plan design assessment committee with equal votes. The outstanding choice was MGT’s Hal Guida’s creation of a dignified backdrop for Tempe House and the scale of development that occurred as it progressed away from the Cooks River and back to Wolli Station. Guida was on Aldo Giurgola’s team whose design for Australia’s new Parliament house made a similar statement in Canberra 20 years before.

There was no other design solution that came near the Guida master plan, and its strength defines all of the refinements that have occurred as the redevelopment has adapted to changing implementation and market circumstances since. It’s interesting how reference to Guida seems silent in the various evolutions of his masterplan.

Obtaining the final planning consents was not without challenge, but it is sufficient to record that the envisioning to satisfying key stakeholder boxes were well ticked. When DCP45 (2001) was approved by Rockdale City Council, it did so with loud acclamation from all but a very few who could not be satisfied. There were no challenges to process, and Rockdale Council was awarded the 2001 UDIA Excellence Award for Public Sector Leadership for their role in working with the proponents, the community and multiple consent agencies for Interciti.

Master plans are just master plans without the enabling momentum being created. So many plans wither on the shelf. Landcom was an enabler of many master plans, initially in green field subdivisions at the urban edge. As the emphasis turned to the growing need for leadership in urban renewal, they began to focus more on that area as well. The key was a preparedness to invest sufficient upfront capital in enabling infrastructure and the progressive feeding of development ready super lots to the market with strong planning and delivery guidelines.

Victoria Park demonstrates this leadership. Landcom resolved a private sector capability gap in enabling developments such as these, despite constant calls by developers that they could do it. Those assertions are not entirely reliable.

The Interciti JV spent over $12 million in design, development consent, and early works such as overland storm water and the Telstra optic fibre cable relocation. In 2002, this was a considerable outlay for a development that has since taken over 12 years to achieve. Landcom’s continued presence, even through the Global Financial Crisis and the constrained capital limitations of the master developer for some year after that, enabled Discovery Point to be sustained and adapted to meet the challenges that have unfolded well after achieving the development consent. Landcom ensured this renewal did not lurch from one speculative owner to another.

It’s now possible to look at what has been achieved versus what was envisioned. It’s possible to consider the case for a Landcom-like agency to stay in control longer as it did at Victoria Park, progressively releasing development sites to a mix of established and up and coming developers. This agency will also have to constantly press the market to respond to the changing product needs of end users and to make sure that there is always a way in for a diverse socio economic mix of owners and renters who can afford to be part of an urban renewal trend that will be the dominant development form for many years to come. It’s also important to note that Landcom was always prepared to leave some value upside on the table in order to enable its corporate and social responsibilities. This is not always so for private developers.

The Interciti JV received a wide range of tenders to become co-developers at Wolli Creek. The successful developer was Australand. They have done a pretty good job. There have been continuity issues, just as there have been with Landcom selling its remaining interests a few years ago. Australand has had at least three CEOs and an ownership change. The initial sale of the project involved a discount to market that recognised the obligations to restore the heritage precinct ahead of any development being occupied, the cost of the integration required for the Wolli Creek station box as the development progressed, and agreeing that the scale and character or the development would remain consistent with DCP 45 (2001).

Approximately 1,000 dwellings formed the basis of the sale. The scheme anticipated paid onsite public parking to ensure less surface traffic to encourage buildings that provided active engagement at the street level, maintaining a human scale and encouraging mixed uses. As Landcom was prone to do, DCP45 envisioned a diverse mix of dwelling choices and types, including home offices. Thornton at Penrith successfully demonstrated this resolve.

The scale of Discovery Point has increased significantly. It’s for others to judge the merits of this and the reasoning. In my view, there are sufficient issues coming out of this to support John Brogden’s decision for the Bays precinct not to be handed over to a single developer. There is sound evidence to justify having a public agency with sufficient capital to enable these types of developments and stay in longer.

Landcom justified this at Victoria Park and the government was more than economically rewarded for its commitment. Victoria Park demonstrates that the delivery of the fine grain qualities held out in the planning consent process and their corporate commitment to more inclusionary outcomes is warranted.

My belief is that governments have the responsibility to optimise outcomes on surplus renewal sites. This cannot be done by a ‘set and forget’ approach that has become the norm in recent years. These projects lock in outcomes for 50 or more years. These important public assets should not be left solely to the short term forces driving private developers.

Perhaps there are fresh winds of change to suggest that the public is not feeling that these are as exciting times as often acclaimed and that opportunity will not knock on every door. Perhaps John Brogden has sensed this too. The answer will no doubt show up at the Bays.

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  1. Roy Barrett

    Excellent article David, and I particularly agree with the matters raised in your penultimate para that such projects on pubic lands lock in outcomes for 50+ years. In these respects it is my belief that the underlying land of these projects should remain in public ownership with the private development that is undertaken on it being by way of a Crown Development Lease [as per the ACT]. Moreover at least part of the funding of such projects should be achieved via the Gov't issuing – and the developer interests putting a 'bid price' on – a parcel of 'Community Development Bonds', created for such purpose [with a % of such also offered to the public].
    In 50 years or so, the circumstances may well be such as to warrant future redevelopment of such projects for other purposes not yet envisaged – the Crown Leases would potentially allow this to occur. If so the public owners of the project land should remain the prime beneficiaries.
    I also believe that projects such as these should now be designed to achieve the highest level of inbuilt environmental sustainability, with on-site micro-grid power, as well as full on-site waste treatment and re-use plants [eg Biopolus' Biomakeries]; electric car-sharing hubs to minimise private car use; community facilities that would provide residents' access to on-line MOOC courses, 3D printing workshops, and urban farming,etc